Some of the greatest advances in human history have come during moments of great adversity. World War II gave us rockets that would eventually take humans to the moon. And the race to the moon would give us baby formula and Nerf guns, among other things.
The motoring industry, together with much of South Africa’s economy, finds itself in a dire situation. It requires innovation and also a closer look at what works.
The only meaningful new sales growth is in the hatchback and sports utility vehicle (SUV) markets, a situation all motoring manufacturers are hoping will help steer them through these difficult times. Car growth has been in the affordable market — and the ridiculously expensive market.
Three years ago Mercedes Benz unveiled the first iteration of its X-Class, the iconic car-maker’s first foray into the world of bakkies. For a company with no heritage in that segment, it felt like a box-ticking exercise to ensure that it had a car in every market group.
Now, even the likes of the Indefatigable, Most Glorious, Shaker of Mountains, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un and his ilk recognise that the three-star brand is one of distinct quality, reliability and prowess. From mid-level company execs (see C-class) to baby movers (see B-class), Merc is as middle class as boom gates and Woolies.
In embarking on this bold new adventure, Mercedes cleverly built on Nissan’s years of experience with its well-regarded Navara chassis by sharing parts with the Japanese manufacturer. It then went about adding some significant touches that would make the “X” distinctly Merc.
To the outside world, it certainly looks the part, with its distinct grill and curves. The finishing on the upholstery and the now ubiquitous Mercedes infotainment display adds further credence to this feeling.
The suspension has supposedly been a significant improvement on the Navara but, to be perfectly honest, in an urban South African city environment with its occasional torn-up road, there’s no marked difference during our week-long test of the vehicle. And, with its price and shiny edges, this car will be driven in cities. It’s not bought to scratch through bushveld and crash against rocky outcrops.
Irritatingly, the accelerator takes some depression before it actually alerts the engine that we’d like to go now. But when it goes … That’s when the X350d V6 motor really shows its chops. Considering the 550Nm at one’s disposal there’s an overwhelming desire to flip it into sport mode. But a look at the 20-litres per 100km fuel consumption will likely pull even the most ardent boy racer into line.
This bakkie has five dynamic modes, with the default being comfort, and a seven-speed gearbox. On the open road it handles beautifully and the wide track is more fully appreciated.
It’s in the tighter urban situations that it can be somewhat cumbersome, especially when it comes to parking, offering drivers a newfound appreciation for park sensor monitors and the art of the three-point turn. In the interior Merc has gone for sparse to an extent that there’s hardly enough room to accommodate all those knick-knacks that accompany most family adventures.
Ultimately, it’s a nice vehicle that does everything that a bakkie is supposed to. But at nearly R1-million for the high-end twin cab, their lack of presence on South African roads is a sure indicator that the local consumers are discerning, especially in these tight economic times, and expect more, especially from an iconic brand like Mercedes.
And, for the R642 000 starting price of the base X-Class, you can buy one of its more pedigreed competitors: cars that are tried and tested, and that you wouldn’t be afraid to take off-road.
This, perhaps, is why Mercedes is rumoured to be rethinking the X-Class, with woeful sales reported globally.